Prepare for an economic turnaround

Contributing Editor Joel Leonard says it's time to prepare for the economy to turn around.

By Joel Leonard, Contributing Editor

Never before have we endured an economic downturn dominated by a 24-hour news cycle. As soon as we see a little upward movement, some news pundit throws out another depressing statistic, trumped-up scandal or sensational tidbit apparently designed solely to catch attention and sow fresh fears.

Now pundits are pushing the idea of a depression as the economy continues spiraling down. What a difference a few years can make. As little as a year ago, the general mood was, “Hey, we are the U.S.A., let’s party and spend money on the latest thing, regardless of need, with or without the cash to pay for them.” My late father once grabbed my arm from his hospital bed in the cancer ward and said with tears in his eyes, “Son, the country will be going through a depression soon and you’ve got to be ready.” At the time it seemed like an impossibility.

Just a few years later, major banks, businesses and industries are on the brink of bankruptcy, mortgage foreclosures are at all-time highs and crowds of unemployed people are gathering at every job fair. Yes, all of America now knows that the party is over.

But this economic downturn is showing silver linings that might mitigate the maintenance crisis. For example, we won’t see the projected rapid exodus of skilled boomer-aged workers because would-be retirees now must put in more years to rebuild their retirement savings. Also, the general public is no longer so snooty about jobs in the technical and skilled trades.

The federal government is taking the lead by backing numerous initiatives to attack the enormous deferred maintenance backlog of our nation’s infrastructure. Companies that have chosen to avoid performing maintenance are facing more public scrutiny in the aftermath of the now infamous roof leaks at Georgia Peanut Corp. that contributed to the deaths of more than 30 people and generated Congressional hearings.

Now, we have to find a way to reverse the spiral and get out of this economic hole. Common sense says that training, new technologies and efficiency programs are part of the pathway to prosperity. However, we also must deal with the training paradox: When times are good, companies have the money, but don’t have time to send people to training sessions. When the economy is bad, they have the time but no funds to spare.

Replenished with $4.5 billion, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 allows locations around the country to gear up quickly to implement a variety of training projects. These range from training displaced workers for growth sectors to youth-development programs, as well as some incumbent-worker training. The Department of Commerce has a Workforce Development Executive Director to manage the One-Stop or JobLink centers in each state.

Each state is divided into workforce regions and has a Workforce Advisory Board and executive director to identify areas of need and to implement solutions to resolve these challenges. In April and June 2009, Workforce Investment Funding will be hitting state treasuries to be dispatched to the regions with approved plans. Numerous projects around the country will begin this summer and fall.

Those interested in upgrading workforce performance and garnering professional assistance can take action. Meet the key people who can help you. Your local, county, region and state economic development teams are busy working to establish an environment to grow and maintain the business community. They are sensitive to incumbent workforce training and can connect you to new initiatives that retain and grow workforce skill levels.

Reach out to the continuing education wing of your local universities, community colleges and private technical schools. Connect with your state, region and local workforce development boards to forge a strong relationship with the executive director. Shared problems can lead to shared solutions. As you get to know these public officials, provide them with facility tours and let them see your company’s opportunities and challenges.

Those who have a plan are rewarded. Perform a workforce needs analysis to determine your current and future requirements. Then, construct a workforce development plan with a strategy geared for retention, recruitment and training.

Companies that get connected, share their challenges and develop strategies will be the ones that receive maximum internal and external assistance. They will be ready to emerge from this downturn with renewed focus and vigor to handle future growth as economic skies clear.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at joel@skilltv.net.

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